Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash

The Once and Future Tabernacle

Religion for the real world

When the pandemic closed the churches, it felt like being kicked out of the Garden again. Desperate to stay alive, congregations invented online services overnight, and now virtual church is here to stay. But where is here?

We are worshippers tabernacled (yup, you can verb it; I looked it up) in our homes, like the primitive Christians in house churches. Ministers are now voice crying in the wilderness, like the ancient prophets, relying on the spirit and our bandwidth. Many of the smaller churches may never physically reopen. And in some ways, it felt like the end of everything.

I think it’s just the beginning.

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

– Winston S. Churchill, November 1942

But what in the world is a tabernacle?

For years, since I grew up unchurched, as they say, I only had a vague idea of what a tabernacle was, except that it was the place where the Mormons had choir rehearsals. But I loved the sound of the word — still do — and I knew it meant something specific and important.

So I looked it up. Today it means different things architecturally, but Exodus 25 describes an elaborate tent that the Israelites were supposed to build in the desert to cover the ark — not the boat kind, like in the 2014 Russell Crowe movie, but the carrier for the covenant kind, like in the 1981 Harrison Ford movie. (Look, movies have been transmitting culture for generations, right?) Anyway, you couldn’t just leave the ark uncovered out there in the middle of the desert, so Yahweh told them how to make a tabernacle for it.

And oh — the detail! It goes on, for pages. The ark is made of acacia wood, and so is something called the mercy seat, but they don’t bother to explain what that is. But next they must have lampstands of gold, and ten curtains of fine twined linen, colored blue, and purple, and scarlet, with cherubim, naturally.

Can you imagine the Pinterest boards?

But the inner area is well concealed; there must be eleven curtains of goat’s hair to cover the linen ones, and a covering to go over the tent, and it’s made of rams’ skins dyed red, and over that is a covering of sea cow hides. Where they got the hides of sea cows, out there in the desert, I have no idea. In fact, I don’t know where these wandering refugees got any of this finery.

But they did, and they built that tabernacle, and then they lit it up:

“You shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. In the Tent of Meeting, outside the veil which is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall keep it in order from evening to morning before Yahweh…”

Why am I telling you all this?

Because the ancients carried Yahweh with them. They didn’t expect Yahweh to carry THEM.

The Israelites did not tell God, “Tell you what —we’re busy right now; why don’t you just go wait over there, in that building, and we’ll just meet you there on Sunday?”

Big difference, then and now.

Today, the word tabernacle can mean whole buildings, or it can mean that little receptacle for the communion elements in a Christian church. Fair enough — language changes.

But I feel the need for that original meaning, because we are in the desert, and we must carry our God with us; especially now that we are in the season of Lent, which can be a wilderness experience at best.

Moreover, over the past year of the pandemic, we have been experiencing the religious transformation of a lifetime; a transformation and a transition that has been predictably painful, because transitions don’t start with beginnings.

Typically, transitions begin with endings.

With loss.

With goodbye.

So many endings this year.

It’s the end of “church growth programs” as we know them, because even though we kept saying “church is not the building,” all we usually ever tried to grow was the number of people we could fit into the building.

It’s the end of believing that “spiritual but religious” is enough. Because that’s like saying we dream of being “smart but not educated.” Now we are starting to see that genuine religion — look it up in your Merriam-Webster 11th edition — is the education the spirit craves.

Religion is simply “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”

(But the devil is in the details, I think…)

What will the New Religion be like?

  • Already spiritual leaders are seeking new ways for religion to change the way it is manifested in the world….
  • Some spiritual leaders have a unique vision for turning congregations into powerful “Schools of Love” in their communities...
  • Some activists and thought leaders are using digital media to mobilize their communities for action...
  • Leaders are already imagining new religious languages and practices that push past division to synthesize faith, science, justice, healing, and hope into a better world for all.

None of them is necessarily imagining new buildings.

At most, they are making tabernacles.

Meanwhile… first we process our losses.

The pandemic of 2020/2021 has had — and will continue to have — profound affects on our economy, our institutions, and our personal lives. These effects cannot yet be measured, but until then, we should probably extend all the grace we can muster to ourselves and one another.

That is the first and constant way we can be the church: by extending grace and being open to the transition that is occurring in the fabric of our lives. It is not merely a “change.”

The change was the closing of the churches

The transition is discovering what that means for your religion.

For every loss we fully grieve and put to rest, there will be a future gain.

Yes, we grieve losing the contact with people you used to enjoy seeing every Sunday. But now when we reach out to them virtually, we get to conquer our shyness once for all because now we have realized that those people are more than just our friends. They are an essential part of our religious practice.

Yes, we grieve the loss of that sense of the sacred, rooted in the place we called our church home. That sense of the holy allowed us to be brave in our thinking, to entertain new thoughts because we always knew God would be there in that same familiar place. (Probably in the same pew, right?)

We kept God safely in the place we said was holy. But was that the only place we could encounter God?

Now, we’re at home because sickness is abroad. We must tabernacle now; make our homes a place for God to dwell with us.

And so I ask myself…

When I re-enter the world, am I prepared to carry my religion with me?

Will I go back into the wilderness with the same vague notion that being “spiritual” is enough to conquer the tectonic shifts happening out there now?

Or will I go back into the world with “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”?

How about you?

  • What will you do from that ardor and faith?
  • What will your tabernacle look like?
  • Will the church of the future have countless tabernacles of holy places — each member’s home a satellite church?
  • Will it then be a marvelous thing, to count how many more people come into God’s presence every week, every day?

Instead of counting bodies, how about we begin to count souls?

Because now each believer — or seeker, or wonderer — or wanderer — will truly become a minister — or messenger — or priest — or prophet— and the church will become something never seen before.

And then that old rascal Churchill will be right in this case too, won’t he? This is not the end of the church, of Christianity, of religion. It’s not even the beginning of the end.

It’s not even the intermission, when you can get up and get a snack. And — in churchly terms — it is certainly not the middle of the service when they are passing the plate and you can slip out the side door.

But it could be the the end of the beginning.

And that means it could be the beginning of the beginning, for each and every one of us, who have been waiting for just such a sign as this.

So… let us begin.

Photo by Cindy Chen on Unsplash

The RevDrSparky has been working on a book and preaching to the Church in the World.

Preaching courage in the face of absurdity. Editor of Real Life, Real/igion — join us for the newsletter Real/igion for the Rest of Us.

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